I am thirty-five years old. As of today, Saturday, November 22nd, 2014, I have been writing novels for exactly twenty years.
My novel-writing rules are strict. My essay-writing rules are not. Writing an essay about writing novels is an immediate challenge. It’d be easier to write a list of bullet points in which I discern where my novel-writing and essay-writing practices intersect. However, one of my essay-writing practices is that I try to keep the writing difficult for myself, so the bullet point list is out of the equation.
For me, essays are exercises. For me, novels are a hobby.
It’s interesting on a fundamental level (if no other level) that I am strict about my hobby and not strict at all about my exercise. Then again, you’d run laps and lift a bunch of weights in order to get in shape to — for example — play football, which is a game with strict rules, even if you’re playing it with your friends.
With that, I’ll abandon the device of metaphor. I’ll try to write about my novel-writing process with the discipline I direct at writing novels. Part of that discipline requires me to acknowledge that metaphors are stupid. An intentional metaphor is unnatural. Nature makes metaphors. If you’re writing fiction, you are making nature. If you lean on metaphors, people will read your writing and tell you that such-and-such plot point was too much of a “coincidence”. In other words, they will skip right over acknowledging that you’re telling a story, and you’re trying to be interesting, and coincidences are interesting.
Now I’m ready to talk about how I write novels.
A couple years ago, a story formula by someone from Pixar was all over the internet. I just looked it up. It turns out it was the work of a storyboard artist. The one slide that resonated with my pre-existing fiction rules is this:
“Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”
Aside from the dead construction (“there was”) and the ~ly adverb (“finally”), I agree with this.
I could not agree more with the two “Because of that”s.
I have a novel-writing formula. I have written many novels of fiction with this formula. I don’t show them to people.
The word length of my novels varies. The average length is 75,000 words.
My novels are always six chapters.
In chapter one, we meet the main character. We experience the main character’s “every day” and “one day” in that one chapter. So, yes, my writing is more economical than even Pixar (!). A Pixar or Disney film might start with a walking tour of the world of the story. We meet the main character, walk a mile in their shoes, meet all the colorful people in their life, and receive various foreshadows about the character’s fate before the character collapses into bed, maybe after singing a song. When the character wakes up, we see the tip of their daily routine again, until the “one day” event occurs.
I like to combine “every day” and “one day”. In my opinion, the best way to do this is to start the story cold with the main character doing their job. I want to immediately frustrate my character. From the instant I introduce the character to the reader, I am itching to point the character at something that is different, and see them react to its being different. My main characters are strong reactors. A small difference is not a big deal. We learn about the character’s “every day” through seeing them solve problems (usually one small problem). I describe the character in plain words. The character is extraordinary. I don’t want to write about ordinary (or, uh, realistic) characters. I describe extraordinary events in plain words.
It’s important to note that chapter one takes place over the course of one day. I plan a busy day for the character.
Then, when the “every day” becomes the “one day”, the transition is enormous and jarring even to our extraordinary character.
Chapter one is around 3,000 or 4,000 words. Chapter one is a short story. It absolutely must work taken on its own. This is non-negotiable. If you put the novel’s title at the top of chapter one and show it to someone as a short story, they need to not say “I want more”. This is the most absolutely necessary element of writing what I consider a “good” novel in my formula. I really can’t stress this enough.
They won’t say “I want more”. They’ll take it as a short story.
If you give it to them as a novel, they’ll keep reading. They’ll continue to read simply because more exists.
Chapter two is my “once upon a time there was a . . .” chapter. I go back to the beginning. I give a history of the character. Maybe I start with the character’s birth. Maybe I start with the week before the events of chapter one.
Chapter two tends to be three times as long as chapter one. I often think of chapter two as “the Wikipedia chapter”: If a bystander to the events of chapter one looked up the main character on Wikipedia, maybe they’d see the information of chapter two (again, my characters are extraordinary people who, if the time setting of the novel permits, would likely have a Wikipedia entry). Chapter two brings us up to date with the character as of the day of the events of chapter one.
I permit myself to use a faster pace for this chapter. Sometimes, I use the same pace as chapter one. Sometimes I describe the character’s whole life. Sometimes, I treat this as a mere flashback.
The one constant is that chapter two is a flashback. I do this to lend new pregnancy to the events of chapter one. In addition, it has the effect of turning chapter two into its own self-containing story. (Aside: I prefer saying “self-containing” to “self-contained”, both because “self-contained” is passive voice and because, well, if something is contained by itself, then its self is also containing itself. So.)
Whatever style I outline for chapter two, it is always a self-containing story.
Whatever style I outline for chapter two, it always plugs into the beginning of chapter one with precision: you should be able to read chapter one, then chapter two, then chapter one again before continuing to chapter three.
Because, you see, the end of chapter one connects with precision to the beginning of chapter three.
Writers of epic poetry called this style of a first chapter “in medias res”: “in the middle of things”. I call it Real Good Storytelling.
The utility of chapter two is difficult for me to explain unless you know what my other chapters are. So I’ll explain my other chapters.
Chapter three is the “because of that” chapter. Chapter three picks up with immediacy where chapter one left off.
In chapter one, “every day” turns into “one day” with a massive final twist. Chapter one is a short story of its own. Chapter one should not leave the reader wanting more. With chapter three, I am not giving the reader “more” of an old story: I am giving them “some” of a new story. Chapter one changes my main character both in the context of that “one day” and in the context of their “every day”: their every day before and after that day.
In chapter one, the character I describe in chapter two becomes a different person, whose story I begin in chapter three.
Chapter three introduces the conceptual hook of my novel. These hooks come to me all the time in my everyday life. I’ll think: “Wouldn’t it be hilarious to write a novel where . . . [an interesting event occurs].” If I like the idea enough, I keep it.
Later, I’ll look over ideas I’ve kept, and think, “What sort of person would live in the world where that particular event occurs?”
Several candidates appear.
I interview the candidates for months or even years.
Some of the candidates for main character of “[Novel About [Event]]” are characters who came to me in moments of conversation or inspiration.
I’ll think: “Whoa: what if it was someone’s job to [. . .] and also they were totally [. . .]?
“What would that person’s life be like? What are their parents like? Do they have a sibling?” In other words, I devise this person’s “chapter two”, right up to the moment their life changes.
When an imaginary person achieves position in my mind as a main character for a novel, I consider the way their life must change for them to take part in the event that begins in chapter three.
Chapter three is twice as long as chapter one. We know the character. Now I introduce the character to the world.
Much happens. As much or as little time can pass as necessary.
At the end of chapter three, the main character makes a decision. It is a big decision. The character does not need to look at someone important and say, “I’ve decided to [do a big thing].” The decision can be quiet.
Chapter three is its own self-containing story. (You will by now have noticed a pattern.)
Chapter three is chapter one’s “because of that . . .”
Chapter three plugs with precision into the beginning of chapter four.
Chapter three’s ending is a big decision.
“Because of that”, chapter four begins.
Chapter four is the second “because of that . . .”
Because I’ve established chapter one and chapter two as self-containing narratives, I won’t stress the reader by making chapter four a drastic jump in time forward from chapter three.
I’ve just conducted a quick mental inventory of my novels. Many of their chapter threes end with the main character going “off the grid”. I suppose I might have found this mechanical aspect in old crime thrillers. Whatever the reason, I find this interesting enough to report. My characters go “off the grid” so that they can acquire the realistic luxury of spending some period of time not changing. Fictional characters must change for fiction to be believable or beautiful. Given the front-loading of character change in my novels, I need to let the character have an intermission, and be invisible from the story (and from the reader) while the world changes.
Chapter four sees the main character in a new world. The action rises at a faster pace than it rises in chapter three.
Chapter four needs to be exciting and strange. If this is a story with action or inventive set-pieces, I write them here.
Chapter four needs to introduce a second main character. This character is the primary main character’s ambassador from the new world. The primary main character must interact with the new character. The new character must present a conflict.
Chapter three has new characters as well. I can put as many new characters in chapter three as I need to. I can put as many new characters into chapter four as I need to, as well.
However, in chapter four, one of the characters must always be strong, unique, conceptually interesting (not in a way that overshadows the main character, of course) and a representative of the changed world. The new character brings — either physically or psychically or philosophically — the main character into the new, changed world, and equips the main character with a new “every day”.
Chapter four is The New Every Day.
In order to obtain this New Every Day, the main character must make a big decision. This tends to happen at the midpoint of the chapter.
Chapter four is a self-containing story.
In chapter four, the main character who I introduce and change in chapter one and chapter two (not respectively), who changes the world in chapter three, encounters a new person in the first half of chapter four, makes a big decision in the middle of chapter four, and obtains a new life through the last half of chapter four.
Chapter four ends on a down beat.
Our main character has a new life. We experience a walking tour of that new life. We walk a mile in the main character’s shoes.
Earlier I said that if my story calls for action set-pieces, I write them in chapter four. This is crucial. Chapter four contains something inventive and interesting all by itself. Usually I present this interesting set-piece as a single “episode” of the character’s new life routine.
When the “episode” concludes, I employ the literary equivalent of a fade to black.
Chapter four is the length of chapter three.
Chapter three is twice as long as chapter one.
Chapter one is one-third the length of chapter two.
So let’s do a quick pre-writing word count. If chapter one is 3,000 words, chapter two is 9,000 words, chapter three is 6,000 words, and chapter four is 6,000 words. That puts us in at 24,000 words.
Chapter five is the most important chapter in the book.
Chapter five is around 20,000 words.
Chapter five concerns The Other Primary Main Character.
I can’t stress this rule enough: good fiction is never about one character. “Moby-Dick” is not about Captain Ahab alone. Likewise, James Bond novels are equally about the bad guys. “Star Wars” is as much about Darth Vader as it is about Luke Skywalker (well, more, if you count the prequels).
In chapter five, I introduce the reader to a character who is as interesting as the main character of the novel. It’s new and exciting. I put the reader right in the middle of the new main character’s life. The Second Main Character experiences their “every day . . .” and their “one day . . .” all in the same day here in chapter five, just as the primary main character experiences their “every day . . .” and “one day . . .” in the same day in chapter one.
For the Second Main Character’s “every day . . .” and “one day . . .” in chapter five, I employ the same pacing I employed in describing the First Main Character’s “every day . . .” and “one day . . .” in chapter one.
The Second Main Character’s “one day . . .” progresses into a “because of that . . .”
This is about the halfway point of chapter five.
The story hesitates there.
We are at the nucleus of the novel.
My goal is to manufacture a necessity: the Second Main Character and the First Main Character must need to meet. The reader needs to feel it.
This is the most difficult part of the novel to write. If I do this part wrong, I might delete the entire story up until this point.
In the Second Main Character’s story, I can use any characters I have introduced in the First Main Character’s story, except the First Main Character themselves.
The impression must be that the Second Main Character exists in a world where the First Main Character exists. In “Chronicle of a Tennis Monster”, the Second Main Character is eating in a bar where the First Main Character (The Tennis Monster herself) is on television. The television is an old CRT. It’s in the corner. It’s near the ceiling. The Second Main Character doesn’t see it. The narrator doesn’t describe it. I’m telling you: it’s there. That’s the way this imaginary world has to work.
I structure my novels as simple machines. I build a lever and a fulcrum. The lever is this world I have imagined from a “Whoa what if . . .” concept, and it is also the person I have imagined from a “What if somebody could . . .” concept.
The Second Main Character is another object of big imagination: “What if somebody . . .” Their story is essential to the First Main Character’s story.
How do they meet? Why do they meet?
Chapter five is an artifact of performance: I have placed my characters in delicate positions in a world with much detail. What do they do? Where do they go?
Conventional fiction-writing wisdom is this: “Show, don’t tell”. I agree with this, except I’d make the comma a semicolon.
When it gets to the core of chapter five, I twist my better instinct to fall into conventional wisdom. It’s no longer “Show; don’t tell” — it’s “Watch; don’t show”.
Usually, this decision ruins everything. This is why you haven’t read any of my novels. This is why I haven’t sent any of my novels to publishers or agents. I make the characters live, and I sometimes despise what happens to them.
Either magic happens every time or I have polished my writing technique over ten thousand or more hours: chapter five always concludes with a cliffhanger because of which the Second Main Character absolutely must meet the First Main Character. Again, either by magic or by technique, this chapter always arrives at this point in an average of twenty thousand words.
Chapter five is not a self-containing story. This is important. Actually, no: never say “This is important!” It will make everyone ignore most other words you say.
Chapter five is not a self-containing chapter because, despite the Second Main Character’s deep and interesting uniqueness, they are a slave to the First Main Character’s destiny.
Also, chapter five is not a self-containing chapter because I do not outline it. I improvise it. It is the weirdest chapter of the book. It is an improvisational climax.
Many of my chapter fives are my favorite writing I have ever done in any field. I enjoy improvising fiction as much as I enjoy outlining and obsessing over fiction. Magic almost always happens in chapter five. It is a product of passion.
Chapter five’s improvisation relies on a world I have established over four chapters. These chapters include many characters and scenes. A huge thing happens in the first chapter. A big thing happens in the third chapter. A big thing happens in the fourth chapter. Through these large events, I as an author have both created the world and lived in the world. When I improvise the second half of the Second Main Character’s chapter, I do so with passion for the world I’ve made.
Since chapter five is an act of “performance” and “improvisation”, it’s important that I keep the writing clean. This is as good a place as any to present some more mechanical writing rules. I’ve imposed these on myself for many years:
1. Start at the beginning. End at the end.
I do not do flashbacks or flash-forwards or even flash-sidewayses. The story is a rope. It does not stop or linger. It moves forward.
The only exception to this rule is chapter two. Chapter two takes place before chapter one. (However, it itself is a rope: it starts at the beginning and it ends at the end. It does not flash backward, forward, or sideways inside itself.)
Aside from an obvious chapter break, I never play with timelines. It is dishonest to cut forward in the story and then cut back. Gabriel Garcia-Marquez did it all the time: he earned it. I haven’t earned it.
I arrive at the task of writing a novel with a long list of events, plots, and characters. I put them in chronological order before I begin telling the story.
This pre-writing exercise may take months or years. Sometimes, you have a character without a plot. Sometimes you have a plot without a character. Sometimes you feel gross when you introduce a character to a plot and they don’t get along well. Sometimes, you want characters to find plots, or for plots to find characters. This takes time. At the end of this time, you need to look at the plots and characters and extract events. You need to know the beginning and the end of your story.
Whatever turns out being the chronologically first moment is the beginning of the second chapter.
Here’s the twist:
Sometimes I cut chapter two out of the book and renumber the chapters.
2. I do not write fiction in first person.
I don’t want to act the part of a character. I especially don’t want to act the part of a character whose personality is “person who describes people more interesting than their self”. I double-especially don’t want to act the part of a character whose personality is “person who describes how interesting they are”. I did this latter thing precisely once in a novel-length piece of writing. I can forgive myself for that, because that piece of writing was autobiographical. How dare I, to begin with, write a book about myself? Well, someone wanted to read it. Let’s not talk about that.
3. I do not know what my characters are thinking.
I never say “She remembered” or “She thought about”. I consider what my characters do. I describe what they do. That is my job as a (hobbyist) novelist. I want to enjoy writing. I want the hypothetical reader to enjoy reading. I want to look at a novel years later, and think, “I wonder what she was thinking when she said that?” I want (hypothetical) you to read my novel and think, “Wow, why did that person do that?” I want you to connect actions and words to previous actions and words. This makes the reading interactive. You choose contexts. You connect reasons to contexts. Your subconscious explains the contexts and reasons to yourself as you read. When you’re done reading, you put the book down. Many years later, you read it again. It’s different, because your brain latches onto some different context. Fiction-writing is game design. I write fiction so that I can enjoy re-navigating its passages later with a different, fresh mind. In order to write stories that don’t bore me later, I need to keep the plotting clean. I need to keep the rising action spartan. I free the prose of poetry. If poetry happens, it must be an accident. If humor happens, it must be the reader’s brain’s fault. The action of the plot must create the humor in the reader’s brain. The words themselves are tools for the enjoyment-building of the reader. I need to keep them tidy: so, my characters do not ever “think”.
4. I write short sentences.
I focus on one event at a time.
I would never write this sentence in fiction:
“He wanted to go to the baseball game though his mom said he couldn’t go so he didn’t go.”
I would write it like this:
“He wanted to go to the baseball game. His mom said he couldn’t go. He didn’t go.”
(Note: I wouldn’t write those sentences, either. Saying “He wanted” = “thinking”. I’d use dialogue. “‘Mom, can I go to the baseball game?’ ‘No.’ He didn’t go to the baseball game.”)
If you linger upon this practice for a few minutes, you’ll see why I avoid passive voice and ~ly adverbs: they make sentences long.
Stephen King derides adverbs in his book “On Writing”. He says — I’m paraphrasing — if you need an adverb to modify a verb, your verb sucks.
“He ran quickly out the door” could be “He sprinted out the door”. Look at that: it’s a few characters shorter.
If you write fifty thousand words without adverbs and then you go back and add adverbs, you’ll have about sixty thousand words.
Now let’s finish talking about chapter five!
I said that my stories do not cut forward, backward, or sideways in time. The action charges forward (yes, it “charges forward” — it doesn’t “constantly move forward”). Chapter five is a microcosm of its surrounding novel. It is as heavy as chapter two, which is also a microcosm of the surrounding novel.
Chapter five happens after chapter four ends. It is not a flash-sideways. Chapter five describes what happens to the Second Main Character while the First Main Character is living their new life as of the end of chapter four. This structure works because I described an episode of the First Main Character’s new routine in the end of chapter four. The reader can form their own conclusions drawing from momentous contexts of their choosing. However, thanks to the weight of chapter two, the reader sees the “fade to black” at the end of chapter four as an indication that the First Main Character “had many more adventures”.
The Second Main Character is as important as the First Main Character. I describe the Second Main Character’s actions.
By the end of chapter five, the Second Main Character must meet the First Main Character. A meeting is imminent.
Sometimes, they lock eyes just as the chapter ends.
In chapter six, the story resolves over the course of 3,000 to 5,000 words.
The sixth and final chapter is the product of sometimes months or years of consideration. During these months or years I hold a monolithic final image in my head. I understand who the characters are in the story. I know that they will meet either by fate or purpose. I know the world in which they live. I do not know why they will meet. However, I know that fate has its own ideas of what must happen when two people meet, whyever they meet. Over months or years, I make compact fate.
The ending is important in a story. I wouldn’t have learned to write novels if I didn’t like writing endings. You need to know how the story ends. It can be a twist ending. I don’t like writing twist endings. They’re boring. Writing a book with a twist ending is like riding in a packed subway. You know where you’re going: you can’t enjoy it because of all the crowding. The twist is by nature “The Good Part”. I don’t prefer to write a book with a “Good Part”. I want it to be many “good parts”.
I said I think of concepts for book stories all the time. I’m always thinking of concepts. I love my concepts. I think over my list of book concepts many times a week. I also love and often think over my list of character concepts, and situation concepts.
Sometimes — usually it is a quiet sometimes — I conceive a situation which would be the end of a long story. This situation always possesses a monolithic image of importance and finality.
My mind races. Which of my story concepts deserve this final image? If I find one immediately, I marry the ending to the story concept. Now I find a First Main Character, and a Second Main Character. I think about who they are. I let them live in a corner of my head. I let them live there sometimes for a long time.
I sit down at my computer before bed. I write for a half an hour. I try not to get too excited about writing. I go to bed.
I am thirty-five years old. As of today, Saturday, November 22nd, 2014, I have been writing novels for exactly twenty years. I have many novels full of people and places I like (or love (or hate)). My novels all end with moments and images of natural poetic mechanical calculation. My novels all end with an abruptness that could never answer any simple question.